An Interview

Michael Moore on The Definition of a Toy

The interview took place by telephone on February 19, 2004. Toronto writer Greg Buium spoke to Moore at his home in Amsterdam.

Greg Buium: How did this all happen?

Michael Moore: I heard that he [Dylan] had this idea to do a quintet. Of course, I’ve played for a long time with Mark and Achim. Dylan and I don’t play a lot. Also, Achim has never played with Mark so it was nice to hear that.

Buium: What did you think of Dylan’s idea?

Moore: I thought it was a great idea.

Buium: Mark and you go back to where?

Moore: Not sure: Paris, New York or Amsterdam, sometime in the early 80s. I’ve been playing in Achim’s quartet for about five years.

Buium: Talk about your musical relationship with Achim.

Moore: I love his music. He writes really beautiful things. I understand that he’s very busy with music in a special way and later the more I got to know him the more I realized he could do a lot of different kinds of music. He has a very keen knowledge of a lot of traditions. He’s very introverted so it’s often hard to get work, or when we do play people think, “This isn’t exciting,” or something, you know. That aspect of it doesn’t bother me at all. In a way I feel like I want to help him, because it’s kind of difficult for people with those personalities.

Buium: Were you playing with Achim before the quartet?

Moore: I think he first called me up to play with the quartet. And then since then we’ve played together in other contexts.

Buium: Dylan was over there playing with you guys a couple of times.

Moore: Yeah. Achim organizes some gigs and then he’s got a kind of a pool of players and then he’ll see who can make the gig, you know. Mostly drummers, I’d say – we’ve played with Paul Lovens and Billy Elgart.

Buium: You met Dylan when you recorded Floating 1…2…3 (Spool) in the summer of 2000.

Moore: That might have been the first time, yeah.

Buium: The context has been both improvised and more structured settings.

Moore: Yeah, the structures have been pretty loose with what we’ve done together. We did a Sanctuary piece with Dave Douglas one year.

Buium: Tell me about the tunes you brought along.

Moore: “Definition of a Toy” I wrote for the date. The other one [“Gaivotas Sobre Lapa”] I wrote, I sketched it out anyway, when I was in Rio de Janeiro a year-and-a-half ago. It just sorted of waited around until the right instrumentation and personnel came along. And I thought this may have been it. I don’t play with piano players and horn players very often. I usually play with piano players and rhythm section, or horn players and rhythm section. Of course, it’s luxurious to have both horns and piano to write for.

Buium: Sketch based on a little scene.

Moore: Yeah. And I was thinking about my father whose birthday it was. [Laughs.]

Buium: What did you sketch in Rio? Did it evolve?

Moore: I had the melody. I guess I had an idea of what the accompaniment would be like as well. There are very little things that I added later on. It was also a kind of a piece where it took shape during the rehearsals and the recording.

Buium: How does it work? There’s the line.

Moore: Yeah. And some simple chords on the piano. And we had to decide which instruments would play the unisons. What would make it more effective. It’s kind of a line that you could play arco on acoustic bass, which is a nice sound. With clarinet it’s a nice sound.

Buium: Why did you know this would be the right place for this tune?

Moore: I think I brought four or five pieces that I thought we could do and these seemed to work the best. It was also the kind of situation where we didn’t know what the other people were going to bring in. If you have a few pieces then you can sort of complement what kind of area the other people are working in.

Buium: You’d lost your alto saxophone hadn’t you?

Moore: Oh right. Oh my god. It was kind of a nightmare. Not only did I not have my instrument I didn’t have my mouthpiece, and that was more of a problem for me. I had a little mind-fart when I was going to the airport from home [Amsterdam] leaving for California a couple of weeks before that. I left the horn on the train. I got off at the airport and two minutes later I realized it and I went to the train people and they searched the train and they couldn’t find it. So not only did I lose the saxophone and the mouthpiece but I lost another clarinet mouthpiece and two irreplaceable Jew’s harps from Mongolia. [Laughs.] Some other small instruments. I never heard anything from it. It’s one of these horns from 1932, you know. I’ve had it for about four years. And I have another one which I am happy with. But it’s always a kind of shock and there are only a certain number of them [a Selmer Cigar Cutter]. Because I went to California first Dylan had a bit of time to look around for one [a horn]. And Brad’s father came through.

Buium: How was that?

Moore: The horn was fine. It was a Mark VI, which I’m not really used to, but they play well. But I had to spend a while finding a mouthpiece. I went to a couple of the music stores in town and eventually found something that worked. But I wasn’t happy with it at all [laughs] and I was kind of fighting with it the whole session. It’s nice to have resistance.

Buium: Now, “Definition of a Toy.” You wrote that for the date.

Moore: The idea for that started, I was driving in Michigan and I heard this ad for a toy store. It was telling us that in the definition of a toy, there were three things you had to look for: it’s open-ended, it’s interactive and it has to encourage creativity. As to distinguish a toy from a waste of time, or a video game or something like that. And I thought, “Wow, it sounds exactly like music to me.” [Laughs.]

Buium: You wrote the piece in the car?

Moore: No. I just wrote down the definition [laughs] and I think I wrote the piece later on.

Buium: Maybe explain the structure of it. The line seems pretty straight but the rhythm section sounds free.

Moore: I think in the beginning they are and it coalesces later on. There’s something going on with time signatures. The first one was five bars of five. A little rhythm section solo. Then about eight bars of four. Then another rhythm section solo. Then four bars of three. Rhythm section solo. Then it goes to two. And then rhythm section plays that with us.

You use a device like that and then you hear it back, this doesn’t reflect that device at all, you know. But as long as it sounds good it’s OK with me. It’s not about the idea. But the melody, it’s kind of a game in the sense that the rhythm section will try to glue the two sections of melody together. But it’s also such that the melody interrupts whatever the rhythm section is doing.

Buium: Why did you write this kind of thing for these guys?

Moore: [Hesitates.] Because it’s open-ended, interactive and encourages creativity. [Laughs.] It’s a very simple piece. It’s just a melody. I don’t see any chords or anything. which is nice for people that like to contribute.

Buium: It is remarkable that everybody came with these songs and you only rehearsed a bit and there seems to be such ease with the written material that gives way to some incredibly natural free playing. Did it feel as natural as it sounds?

Moore: It didn’t feel very natural for me because I was dealing with this horn. [Laughs.] Of course the personnel they were great. A lot of that is just, that’s what we do you know. It’s like whatever you do you have to make it sound easy – suspension of disbelief or something.

Buium: But Achim’s piece, for example, seems pretty hard.

Moore: Yeah. He writes complicated melodies. But I’m pretty used to reading them by now, and he has a sense of what lays well on instruments.

Buium: What are your other memories of the date?

Moore: I remember Mark’s piece, with lots of cues and textural improvisations. And Achim’s piece. That’s Achim’s piece [laughs], very clearly an Achim piece. And Brad’s piece, I recall that being very beautiful. A gorgeous piece of music. Also very simple.

Buium: No van der Schyff piece.

Moore: No Dylan piece, no.

Buium: There was a graphic score, wasn’t there.

Moore: I think we played through it and it seemed similar to Mark’s. So he withdrew it. But that’s the thing about having a few pieces. Now, had Mark not brought that in then maybe we would have used Dylan’s piece. I hope he doesn’t feel bad about that. [Laughs.]

Buium: Do you think this group will play together again?

Moore: I don’t see why not. It’s just a matter of getting them over here or us over there. Something like that. Yeah, that would be fun. It was really fun to play the pieces at the concert after the recording session. That felt really good.

Buium: I guess you were finally starting to feel at ease in them.

Moore: Yeah, well, a recording session is a great rehearsal, if nothing else.